Saturday, September 03, 2011

Leaves on the Winds

It wasn't an addiction in the beginning. It was an idea.

I had just seen the mini series about John and Abigail Adams and had read some of the background material about their letters, those personal and intimate letters. That is how it began.

There was a little stationery in my cache of goods and all I needed was a little more stationery and a new fountain pen. I bought both and began writing, at first a letter to a friend or two and once in a while to family. Writing letters wasn't anything new. Letters and envelopes had poured out of the printer over the years. Now I wanted something more personal, a piece of myself offered to friends, a trail that led to the heart of me, to the often anachronistic me, in my own hand.

My handwriting had deteriorated after years of neglect, and after years of scribbling in paper journals, most of which are written in a coded kind of shorthand, not to hide information but to make the writing go quicker. Quick writing is seldom legible; it is scribbling. I can read the entries, often with a little difficulty, but I wrote them and I know the code. Letters would have to be neater, clearer, something anyone could read, and so I began.

Handwriting letters causes physical pain, mostly in the hands, fingers, and wrist of the writer, and cramps seized my hand at odd moments, increasing until by the end of the letters it ached. Anyone who says writing doesn't change you is wrong. It changed my hands. I had no idea how out of shape they had become, at least as far as dexterity and strength were concerned. Typing, which I have done a lot over the past 40+ years, uses a different set of muscles and makes different demands on coordination. Bluntly put, my penmanship needed work, a good bit of work.

Taking long breaks between letters while waiting for answers that never came left me with aches and pains and cramps after writing a few letters. The only answer was to write more letters, be more diligent. Okay, so no one was writing back (okay, one or two responded in kind once in a while); that could not be a factor in the plan to hone the art of letter writing. These were my messages written on leaves and sent on the winds of the U.S. Postal Service and must continue whether or not anyone responded in kind.

I flirted with sealing wax but deemed it unfit for letters sent by mail and not by pony express. Letters would jam in the USPS machines and would end up at the other end in shreds or perhaps one small corner in a plastic bag with a contrite message of apology. "Your mail was caught in our machines and we do apologize for your loss." As much as I like the idea and the whole fire melting wax and ornate seals pressed into the heated glob, it wouldn't work for modern machines, so it was out. There was a momentary sigh of loss and lost opportunity, but only a moment's worth.

The stock of stationery dwindled and was replaced with more of the same -- at least until I checked out another stationery site. There were cards: greeting cards, birthday cards, thank you cards, invitations, just because cards, and blank cards. Blank cards with space for writing little messages. That was a good idea, and so a small purchase was made.

The cards didn't last long, what with all the writing and keeping up my dexterity, strength, and writing abilities, so more cards were purchased. A few extra dollars in the budget and off I went to purchase more blank cards and occasionally more stationery. One fountain pen was followed by two and three and more until I owned six fountain pens and a dip pen. A cobalt glass inkwell with a silver lid followed -- there has to be a place to keep the ink since the ink bottles, utilitarian as they are, were not pretty enough, didn't make enough of a statement with the fountain pens and colored inks.

Yes, the switch to colored inks began innocuously enough with a sample pack of all the inks that Levenger offers. One cartridge of sixteen colors were tried and a winner selected. Not blue -- that is so common. A regal purple fit for a queen, fit for my letters. All I had really wanted was an ink light enough to show up on some dark blue envelopes that went with some special correspondence cards (I had added those to my letter writing repertoire) and I ended up with Regal, which is Levenger's name for that royal purple.

I often wonder if the ink is still made with the special shellfish that were ground up and used to color the satins, laces, silks, and velvets worn by royalty in days gone by.

At any rate, the addiction was full blown at that point. Boxes of blank cards and stationery and correspondence cards stacked in spaces once occupied by books and magazines fill the cubbies on my desk. A box of the latest offerings holds another cache of cards.

Such an addiction needs feeding. Birthday cards, get well cards, just because cards, and holiday cards fill out the list and I'm looking and lusting after a Waterman pen that is far more expensive than any pen I have previously purchased. A Venetian Murano glass dip pen twinkles at me and suggests I give it a try and there has been a brief flirtation with a real quill pen and not some modern hybrid with a nib to make it easier to use. A real quill pen will require a pen knife to shittle and shape and of course a supply of quills, should I find I enjoy the effect, may have to be worked into the budget. I can give up more of the clothing allowance and, since I'm on a diet and eating more packaged food (good packaged food), money can be diverted from that, and a second job to fund this addiction could be worked into my already over worked scheduled, but it's writing letters. Personal and private missives that delight the receiver and fill me with purpose and joy. What else can I do but give in?

I never intended to get this far into the whole handwritten letter thing, but I am caught and I want to continue. Few days go by without me choosing and picking up a fountain pen, checking the ink, choosing a card, and writing a little something to my friends and family. I began with a very small list that has become a much larger group of people that every week or two get some little glimpse of my life and my improving penmanship.

Imagining the look of surprise and maybe even the smile that flashes when they receive an envelope addressed to them gives me pleasure, and I am adding to the belles lettres (although probably not quite that belle) in the world. I need no longer look for pen pals or beg some stranger to write to me. I write the letters and look forward to the rare response that comes my way.

The addiction is mine. I own it. I admit it. I'm not going to stop it. I enjoy the time spent with pen and ink and paper. I don't even mind the cost in postage, to which end I have purchases supplies and a program and print out my own postage. It's an addiction that can be as expensive or as cheap as the addicted wants. I prefer quality in my tools and that costs money. So what if I don't have a closet full of shoes or purses and I didn't buy a brand new toaster or electronic toaster oven? I have boxes of stationery, boxes with changing contents, and I write letters.

My cooking might be remembered (it is quite something to remember) and someone might keep a memory of some stray comment or joke I once told, they might even pull out pictures of our times together, but there is nothing more lasting than a letter written by my hand and kept in a bundle, perhaps tied with a ribbon, and some day stashed in a trunk in the attic for some future someone to find, read, and smile over. While all that might be true, it still remains something I do for myself -- and for my friends -- a bit of the past alive and well in the modern world, a part of old technology with new tools, letters sent off on the winds like poetry written on leaves and offered to the fates, a piece of me and my world alive and well that brings someone a smile or a tear. What better way to spend a couple of moments or a quarter of an hour? I can think of none better.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

One Trick Ponies

Can anyone learn to write? Yes.

Can anyone learn to be a writer? Not really.

No matter what people and teachers will say, not everyone has it in them to be writers. That's a good thing. Everyone has a talent, a desire to do something or be someone, but not everyone can or should be a writer. That is a lesson that came home to me again this week.

The publishers of the Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies send me regular call-outs for new books. Since my stories have been featured in six books, it makes sense they want to hear from writers who have been published with them before.

One such call-out came a month ago. The book was for stories about caregiving. While I have taken care of my ex-husbands and children (the kids were much easier), I don't consider myself a caregiver. I have helped out with relatives and friends, but still no real caregiver stories. I did, however, know of two people who had stories to tell and it would be a nice to see their stories in print.

My sister Beanie took care of our father in the last months of his life without the help of my other sister Hoity-Toity and my brother The Mushroom. What began as a bit of resentment for having to do it all alone and put her own life and family on hold, turned out to be a rich and memorable experience full of love and laughter. We are talking about my dad and there was always laughter, even when the cancer was devouring his bones and he was in great pain. That was just Dad. I've written about him before, but this story was Beanie's to tell.

I didn't help out because they all lived in Ohio and I live in Colorado. I wouldn't mind the commute, but I really couldn't afford to fly back and forth every day.

I told Beanie about the book and urged her to write about taking care of Dad, explaining she had until August 31st to get it done.

"That's not long enough," she complained. "Why don't you do it?"

"Because it's not my story. It's yours."

"I could tell you and you could write it."

"Nope. It has to be your story. I'll help with editing."

I could have heard her sigh without the telephone. "You'll rip it to pieces. You always do."

After a short explanation of editing and a discussion about how my ripping her work to pieces helped her earn As in her college composition classes (a required subject), she relented and agreed to give it a try.

My next call was to my aunt. She had just lost her youngest son Timmy and had taken care of him in his final days. Timmy was forty-eight when he died a few months ago. I knew it would be a tough sell, so I suggested it gently. She took to the idea right away and said it might help. (She's been crying for months now and I thought writing the story about caring for Timmy would be cathartic even if it was never published.)

We were off to the races -- or rather they were off to the races and I waited . . . patiently.

Beanie sent me her first draft about two weeks ago. I edited it, suggested some changes and sent the edited version (marked up in red and "ripped apart"). She was reluctant to open the files and finally did. She found out it wasn't quite as bad as she thought it would be. I suggested she add more about what it was like to take care of Dad and she said she'd get to it. "Better yet," she said, "why don't you write it and send it in? I've done the hard part."

"We talked about this and the answer is still no."

That's when the truth came out.

"I worked on that for three weeks. I tried to write it when we went camping, at night when the kids were asleep, at work when there was nothing to do, everywhere. Every time I started writing or thinking about it, I got a headache. I have too much going on and I can't go through that again. Either make the changes yourself -- I'll tell you what I did -- or forget about it."

I really do not and did not understand what there was about writing that gave her a headache. Writing helps clear my head and gets rid of any tension headaches I get.

We went back and forth and finally I agreed to her solution. I'd write what she said and incorporate it into the story. I submitted the story yesterday with her information. She can use the money, but I thought getting a story published would also boost her confidence and show her that she could write. "It's just not my thing," she said. "That's more your turf."

She's right about that.

My aunt was easier.

Aunt Anne worked on the story, did a bit of tightening and rewriting, but couldn't get it printed out. Her desktop computer was ancient, at least ten years old, and Timmy's printer wouldn't interface with it. She told me about it after the fact, but I would have suggested copying the file to disk, going to Kinko's, and printing it out there. Cheap, fast, and reliable.

Aunt Anne bought a new printer. The computer didn't recognize it at all and the printer said she needed to upgrade her software. She wasn't about to pay $129 for a Windows upgrade, so she took her grandson's advice, went to Best Buy, and got a laptop for $298. The new printer installed quickly and she printed out the story, put it in an envelope, and sent it overnight to me. The clock was ticking.

Her grandson told her to get the computer, print out the story, and take the computer back. She wouldn't be out any money and she'd get the job done. The only problem with that idea was she liked the new laptop so much she decided to keep it.

I received the story today, looked it over, and noticed that it needed a little more about what it was like taking care of Timmy. I called. We talked. She answered my questions and gave me the go-ahead to add to the story and submit it, which I did this evening well ahead of the deadline.

Aunt Anne did good. The story was clear, touched the emotions, and there were only a couple of spelling errors. (She couldn't find the spell check on the new computer.) I told her I was impressed and I could hear the big grim over the phone."Well, you're the expert," she said.

"No, I'm just a writer with some experience."

"I'm a one trick pony," she added when I suggested she might like to try writing something else. "I love the new laptop, but I'm no writer. That's your thing."

I teased her a little (she used all caps to write the story) about getting older (she is 77 years old as of last Wednesday) and she laughed and teased me. We're family. She is definitely not interested in writing any more stories, but she did appreciate this challenge because it gave her a chance to write about being with Timmy those last days after he decided not to get the liver transplant, and she had something to share with her other son Jeff and Timmy's children. I learned something, too, about what it was like for her, although I knew because we talked on the phone nearly every day. She lives in Ohio, too, and it's still nearly 2000 miles away.

My sister and my aunt rose to the challenge and got a little satisfaction from writing about their experiences, but Beanie isn't fond of headaches and Aunt Anne only had one story she wanted to tell. They are content with what they've done but they don't want to be writers. That's my thing, as they both reminded me.

No, not everyone wants to be a writer, nor should they. Someone has to read the books, stories, and articles writers create.

I would have welcomed both my aunt and my sister into the family of writers if that had been their choice. It just is not going to happen. I'll keep correcting Beanie's grammar, spelling, and punctuation when she emails and Aunt Anne will keep me on tap to help her get the most use from her laptop. That I can do.

Even though they're not writers, nor do they want to be writers, it's nice to know they appreciate the work and talent that goes into my writing. If nothing else, they understand me a little better. I guess that is enough for me -- and for them.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


I was browsing through The 10% Solution.

I mean the $9.99 book by Ken Rand, not the movie about Sherlock Holmes going to see Sigmund Freud, which is really The 7% Solution since Holmes was in all things careful about his health. That centered on a time when opium dens flourished and cocaine and other drugs were sold over the counter and readily available, when the police only went to opium dens to do the job of detecting, question suspects, and pick up dead bodies and the government was more involved in intrigue and governing the country and not filling the prisons with drug addicts who, they believed, could go to the devil in their own way as long as murder, theft, or fraud were not part of the deal.

They (the British government) also had a strange idea that if the prisons were full to capacity with the downtrodden, debtors, and real criminals who had stolen, defrauded, murdered, beaten, robbed graves, burked people to provide bodies for medical students who needed a cadaver to study, or were mad and shut in Bedlam, among other ills due to the financial disparity between the upper, middle, working, and lower classes (the lower classes driven to crime to feed themselves, their families, and buy gin to get drunk and numb the pain of reality and poverty), the malcontents and miscreants were packed off like chained sardines to Australia where they were out of harm's way, decreased the surplus population, and could drink, whore, steal, drug, and whatever into oblivion away from the increasingly cramped confines of London and the countryside. Australia was also a good place for political prisoners who objected to the poverty, government, and way of life that denied a man all pleasure and sustenance, as were India, the colonies, the Bahamas, Africa, and the other outposts of British control. What's the use of having all that real estate without real Englishmen to populate the lanscape?

Aah, the golden days when the rich got richer and the poor could still get drunk, do drugs, and whore without risking jail. The rich drank, did drugs, and whored, but the likelihood of them seeing the inside of a jail cell was remote. Rank and funds doth impart immunity and privileges. Oh, for the days of opium, a 7% solution of cocaine to relieve boredom and ennui, and plenty of gin, even without the tonic.

I was browsing through The 10% Solution, which is a slim paperback volume priced far too high for the content, about writing tighter, moving the story along faster, by eliminating extraneous words. Those words are mostly connective words, writers' tics, that impede the flow of speedy progress, which is fine in a newspaper report or radio report, but not so fine with regard to the cost and content of books. It's all connected. Everything is connected.

What Rand writes about, in the tone of a sales letter that is long on words and short on getting to the point, is removing words and syllables like And, ly, that, of, ing, but, etc. Those words can provide color and a hint of the writer or character using said words as narrator or in dialogue and are not necessarily obstructive, but Rand believes them to be so, hence the book, which is more an article and less a book without the large type and small size of a less than trade paperback. The cover is nice and so is the introduction by a big fan, and well known author, whose name escapes me at this point.

(Oops, one of those phrases that should be edited out . . . at this point . . . and I do see the point, especially when typing up operative reports in which doctors repeatedly use that and other phrases that basically boil down to and then this happened and then that happened and then and then and then instead of getting directly to the point without all the fluff. "I used a scalpel to cut down through the layers of tissue and entered the abdominal (peritoneal) cavity. The hernia sac contained incarcerated bowel (omentum, muscle, fat, etc.) and was reduced back into the abdominal (peritoneal) cavity, ligated, and closed. Etc., etc., etc. Instead, (another verboten word in tight writing) the doctor goes on and on at length adding as well as instead of and, at this point, instead of moving on or at least using at that point since the text is in past tense, as is the rest of the sentence, and so on. I'd rather have a concise and tightly written/dictated report and lose the pages than have to go on for five minutes -- or up to 20 minutes -- with fluff and garbage. Get to the point.)

To get back to the point (pointless words that do not move the narrative forward), the book is a bloated explanation of a very simple process, something that George R. R. Martin calls sweating the text, which is a screenwriter's term for getting out the fluff and condensing fifty pages to ten, which can be done. I've done it in editing my own work, removing my own writer's tics. Writing tight isn't really my problem since I err on the size of tightness in the first place (self-editing as I write) and usually need to pad the text, only I pad with description and characters and action instead of erm, but, or, at this point, as well as, etc.

Whenever I am forced to listen to, watch, or read reams of text just to tell me a product works with a couple of examples, maybe a testimonial or two, and the price it will cost me to get this miracle, I skip down to the text. When faced with a video scrolling words or a talking head reading said sales text, I shut it down, run a search on the topic, and cut right to the chase.

What I'm am getting around to writing is that, while I do agree with the subject of the over priced book, I don't appreciate paying more than it's worth. Some would say, a little prevention is worth the price of a pound of cure, but they knew the prevention cost less than the full treatment. I'd give Rand's writing tip top marks for the central theme and a big thumbs down for the price. I've bought, read, and written books that didn't cost as much.

I suppose the real point in this meandering post is that everything is connected some way. I started with Sherlock Holmes, moved through scriptwriting, operative reports, and sales letters and came out at the same point where I started. Sort of. I didn't mention the price in the first sentence; that came everything is connected and makes ours a much more interesting life and -- in this case -- a review of a good pamphlet that should not have been a book.

I highly recommend the content. Consider getting the book second hand or checking it out of the library and copying the important material. It's cheaper.